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CLT airport authority backers say study validates their push

By Steve Harrison, Jim Morrill and Ely Portillo
sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

The two North Carolina lawmakers who introduced legislation to create an authority to run Charlotte Douglas International Airport said Friday they would consider changes in light of a consultant’s study but said the report validated their push to remove the airport from city control.

“If anything, the study has just bolstered the case for an authority,” said Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican.

Sen. Bob Rucho, also a Matthews Republican, said the study supported “what we’ve been saying from day one.”

Like Brawley, he said he’s willing to discuss changes in the makeup of the board that governs the authority.

“I’m definitely willing to sit down and listen and talk,” Rucho said. “I’d like to hear some rationale … so we can fully understand what the intent is.”

Consultant Bob Hazel, hired by the city, issued a draft report Thursday that said Charlotte Douglas would be best managed by an authority – a finding at odds with Mayor Anthony Foxx and the City Council. But Hazel also criticized the bill in the General Assembly, saying the legislation should give Charlotte a greater share of seats and allow for more time to transition to an authority.

Hazel, however, said the city of Charlotte should not have a majority of authority seats. He said that would jeopardize the authority’s independence.

Rucho’s authority bill already has passed the Senate. It’s next stop is the House transportation committee, which Brawley chairs.

Brawley said the panel may not be able to hear the bill until May 21.

Foxx suggested Friday that a task force be formed to study the best path forward for the airport. The mayor had previously suggested the city hire a consultant to study whether an authority was a good idea for Charlotte Douglas.

In a statement to the Observer, Foxx said “the study points out that the stated reasons behind the current bill are not reasons to change our model and confirms that the bill itself is half-baked. ... My reading of the study suggests that we should put aside this bill and join together to develop a real consensus plan for the airport.”

He said the group would be similar to a task force he assembled this year to study transit financing.

In an earlier interview Friday, Foxx was asked whether the city would focus on trying to reshape the proposed governing board of the authority to give the city more seats.

He said the proposed makeup of the authority board is “one of its problems,” but he did not indicate the city is resigned to the House passing the bill.

“My priority is to stop the bill,” Foxx said.

Friday, Hazel told reporters that an airport authority is the best way to preserve the future of Charlotte Douglas. He acknowledged that might be difficult to reconcile with his praise for the city’s management of the airport, and he said he hasn’t heard from local officials about his $150,000 city-funded study.

“I’ve received no feedback whatsoever,” said Hazel, who will visit Charlotte and Raleigh next week to present the study.

“How can we say the city’s past performance is excellent, then recommend a different form of government going forward?” he asked rhetorically. “Based on how we see the future of the airport.”

Hazel said that transitioning to an authority wouldn’t necessarily improve performance at the airport. Charlotte Douglas has the lowest cost-per-enplaned passenger out of the top 25 U.S. airports, which has made it an attractive place for US Airways’ largest hub.

US Airways operates the vast majority of flights at the airport, and more than three-quarters of passengers are changing planes, not going to or from Charlotte. That leaves Charlotte Douglas especially vulnerable to a decline in US Airways traffic.

Hazel said he believes an authority will give the airport a better chance of staying successful than city management. When asked if leaving the airport under city control puts it at risk, Hazel paused.

“What we concluded was that – let me put it this way,” Hazel said. “Going forward five years, there’s no guarantee under the city structure or the authority structure that the airport will be successful.”

But Hazel said he believes an authority gives better odds.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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